strange (propaganda) tools, Sebastian Cichocki

narrator Sebastian Cichocki
term strange (propaganda) tools
published August 2022, Warsaw
affiliated institution Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw

“All art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. […] I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.” [1]

⁠— W.E.B. Du Bois, 1926


While assuming the necessity of dealing with the excesses of contemporary art, we must bear in mind the freedom of art, including the freedom to cease being what it is supposed to be. Sometimes this is related to a return to more compromised or historically marginalised forms such as → propaganda (→ propaganda). The word mustn’t frighten us. After all, every work that persuades us of something, be it a form of aesthetics, an opinion, a pleasurable or unpleasurable experience, is a form of propaganda. Today more than ever before, we need the art of propaganda to act on behalf of minority rights, women’s reproductive rights, and the well-being of our natural environment and other species.


The extravagant costume of contemporary art often constrains movement and impedes the ability to deliver a well-aimed blow.


One of the classics of conceptual art, the Uruguayan artist of German origins Luis Camnitzer, a teacher and writer on education, likened the art world to a collection of Aladdin’s lamps.[2] We collect, conserve and admire “vessels”, we view them in museums, contemplate their ornaments and forms. We can write the history of these objects, name the styles and tendencies. But what really interests us is the genie trapped inside the lamp or bottle, where we believe he resides with his superpowers. We have created a very sophisticated system of sustaining the belief in the existence of this spirit: museum edifices, frames and plinths, books and catalogues, specialist language, the cult of “genius”. This system may be extremely costly and energy intensive. What’s more, it requires specialist knowledge and (fittingly for a cult) an appropriate degree of initiation. Art would therefore be something of “handicraft+”, although it is difficult to determine, without sliding into esotericism, what hides behind the mysterious “plus”.


What if the genie does not exist? Or – apparently a much more interesting possibility – he has left the lamp and seldom visits it, inhabiting instead many different places, objects and actions? Welcome to the world of genies liberated from the bottle once and for all!


Artmaking is about adding and more seldom about subtracting. This involves a peculiar paradox: even the artworks that convey a critique of the exploitation of natural resources and rapacious modernisation materialise in the form of energy intensive and costly objects. The effort → invested in keeping artworks alive, in terms of air-conditioned halls, sophisticated forms of display, specialist transport, and so on, is little short of gargantuan. Skittish ideas captured in material forms suck out resources and energy. At the same time, postulates have been formulated in art for several decades to refrain from production and shift artistic work to the sphere of environmental and climate activism. This is how we can consider, for example, the process of the dematerialisation of the artwork in conceptual art in the 1960s, a practice that often rested on → ecological foundations. This aspect has been marginalised in Western art history as incongruent with the cool, analytical, “inorganic” image of this artistic tendency. In his conversation with Ursula Meyer in 1969, the artist Lawrence Weiner declared straightforwardly:[3] “If you can’t make art without making a physical imprint on the physical aspects of the world, then maybe art is not worth making. In this sense, any permanent damage to ecological factors in nature not necessary for the furtherance of human existence, but only necessary for the illustration of an art concept, is a crime against humanity.” Two years later, a text was published in Poland to accompany the plein air Ziemia Zgorzelecka – 1971: Art and Science in the Process of Protecting the Human Natural Environment in Opolno-Zdrój.[4] This manifesto, which articulated the principles of what was most likely the first climate plein air in Europe, included the following forecast: “The modern-day civilisation model is the most supreme machine we know heading for self-annihilation. This results from the drive to constantly change the world. We are currently witnessing a manifest crisis of science as a universal remedy for all problems of humankind.”


The climate crisis, experienced on a daily basis through the painful loss of biodiversity, the seasons, and a general lack of hope for the future, requires the activation of massive deposits of → imagination (literally: more propaganda!). Meanwhile, the art world as a model of production, distribution, relations with its audiences, is burdened by numerous flaws: a penchant for exaggeration, extravagance, competition, overproduction, elitism. Part of art history is also the tradition of observing the sky and the → Earth, variable light conditions, temperature and humidity. The history of 19th century painting alone can teach us a lesson about the degradation of the natural environment in the Industrial Revolution era. Through artworks we experience destructive processes to which art itself frequently contributed. At the same time, emerging steadily from the intersection of art, political activism and ecological thought since the 1960s is a reflection on art seen from the perspective of geologic time and a need to create works that are neutral or even beneficial for the environment. The choice of such artists as Bonnie Ora Sherk, Betsy Damon and the OHO Group was to refrain from producing new artworks, which fill museum storage spaces, and to hand agency over to non-human forces. For example, the American artist Bonnie Ora Sherk (1945–2021) engaged in transforming neglected areas of the city into green enclaves useful for local communities. Sherk called her early works from the 1970s “environmental performance sculptures” – she found places that could act as stage settings for her temporary interventions. The performer’s presence was supposed to change the perception of “dead spaces”. In October 1970, while wandering around San Francisco, Sherk came across an enormous puddle filled with rubbish and building materials – the remains of the construction of the giant 101 Freeway Interchange. The artist returned there with a photographer, put on an evening gown and sat for an hour in an armchair resting in the dirty water, smoking cigarettes and contemplating the surrounding urban landscape. This scene, recorded in Sitting Still I, is a graceful illustration of the concept of “dark ecology”, proposed several decades later by the philosopher Timothy Morton – the boundaries between the natural and the unnatural, the artificial and the organic, have been blurred. In the mid-1970s, Sherk chose to adopt a more active approach to urban regeneration by initiating the creation of spaces where local communities could work, learn and relax together as well as spaces for animals (which at that time were ever more often involved by the artist in joint interspecies actions). Her most famous project, Crossroads Community (The Farm), 1974–80, was a community garden set up under the highway overpass in the same location where the photo Sitting Still I was taken a few years prior. The farm grew to seven acres and included garden beds and the Raw Egg Animal Theater, a building for animals, among other facilities. Used by residents of residential neighbourhoods in the vicinity – Mission, Bernal Heights, Potrero Hill and Bayview – the place served as a kindergarten, a neighbourhood club, a playground, and a farm.


Taking Camnitzer’s reflection about the genie further in the context of Sherk’s work, the spirit would remain invisible, but no longer contained in the vessel that restricts his movements and distracts attention from possibly the most important thing in art: the work of imagination, → care (→ care) and building an interspecies community.


The above example leads us to one of the tools of contemporary propaganda, useful in the context of museology in an era of climate crisis: → rewilding, that is making a site wild (again), renaturalisation. This term appeared in the 1990s in a debate about new, more radical strategies of protecting the natural environment. It was proposed and propagated by Dave Foreman, the founder of the organisation Earth First! The organisation Rewilding Europe describes this tactic on its website as leaving the vastest possible wild spaces free from human intervention to allow natural processes to once again create diverse landscapes, damaged ecosystems to regenerate, and the renaturalisation of heavily transformed areas.[5] The fundamental rule of rewilding is: “nature manages itself”. In a certain sense, this means a reversal of processes initiated by humans during the Neolithic revolution. It is tempting to apply this term to artistic practices that involve refraining from production and, instead, creating conditions for other species that can take control over a given area.


Of note in this context is the practice of the artist John Latham, who was employed at the Scottish Office in Edinburgh in 1975–76 (as part of the Artist Placement Group experimental programme). Latham was assigned the task of developing a feasibility study concerning the removal of nineteen suburban slag heaps, left after the mining of oil-bearing shale since the 1860s. Latham approached the slag heaps as → process sculptures and proposed nominating them as monuments of historical, cultural and natural significance. A group of slag heaps ultimately became protected by virtue of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act. Nominating slag heaps as landscape-as-art can also be seen to do away with the dichotomy between the natural and artificial. It also brings to mind Joseph Beuys’ enigmatic proposal (few traces of which are found in museum archives and writings) concerning the “conservation” of Dutch light. Beuys assumed that the unique light conditions known from old paintings had been ultimately lost at the beginning of the 20th century due to the land reclamation project in the Zuiderzee, a former North Sea Bay. Rewilding as an artistic activity could theoretically allow for restoring the sublime experience of being blinded by the bay water surface.


Last but not least, thinking about art of the future and propaganda we may evoke the ecoaesthetics programme proposed by the Pakistani-British artist Rasheed Araeen. This minimalist sculptor and installation artist, founder of the Third Text journal, postulates going beyond the supremacy of Homo sapiens and unleashing the “creative energies of free collective imagination”. He criticises the very system in which art functions, which maintains hierarchies, glorifies blind growth just for the sake of growth, separates creative energies from everyday life processes and petrifies them in the form of “narego” – the narcissistic ego of the artist. Araeen proposes two terms: nominalism and cosmoruralism. The former refers to launching useful processes by artists which are implemented by local communities – fluid, lasting, based on sustainable development. Towards the end of the 1970s, Araeen visited the desert territories of South Balochistan, from which his ancestors originated. Greatly impressed by the majestic Pakistani landscape, the artist asked himself: “Why cannot this landscape become an artwork?” An engineer by education, Araeen proposed the construction of a dam in the desert to help retain water from periodic rivers. The structure would become both a sculpture and a functional dam, an artist’s work and a feat of engineering, it would serve aesthetic contemplation and improve living conditions. This would not be a model of a situation meant to highlight a certain problem, and therefore Araeen’s task would consist above all in not making art. The second proposal, cosmoruralism, is a total vision of a network of cooperatives and ecological villages based on fair cooperation between the Global North and Global → South, which would result in the reforestation of the Sahara, among other effects.


Imagining a new world, which is the goal of propaganda at its finest, is a step in the right direction. This is where the role of artists can be distinguished in an era of planetary change: the mobilisation and activation of processes of imagination that would offer an alternative to doubt, and the sense that it is already too late to do anything.


As an imaginative exercise and a lesson in artistic camouflage and propaganda, it is also worth reconsidering Jerzy Ludwiński’s texts from the first half of the 1970s. The theoretician, lecturer and art critic (1930–2000), considered one of the apostles of conceptual art in Poland, assumed that we were living in a “post-artistic era”. Ludwiński maintained that we should expect a completely new kind of art that would not require support or “nurturing” by art institutions, and that wouldn’t need to be imbued with visibility and meaning. Writing about a post-artistic era, Ludwiński emphasised the osmosis between art and other disciplines. His premise was that the new art would escape the confines of language and the institutional apparatus at our disposal. “Perhaps, even today, we do not deal with art. We might have overlooked the moment when it transformed itself into something else, something which we cannot yet name. It is certain, however, that what we deal with offers greater possibilities,” Ludwiński wrote in 1972[6]. In that very year, on the other side of the Atlantic, Allan Kaprow in his essay “The Education of Un-Artist: Part 1” noted the following revelation, “Nonart is more art than Art art.”[7]


By way of conclusion, I would like to refer to the science-fiction short story “Rainbow Wrasse” from 2018 by the Irish writer Francis McKee, published as a part of the Constituent Museum anthology.[8] It is set in a realm in which forecasts about the planetary system’s ultimate destabilisation become reality. The human population has shrunk significantly, the available farmlands can only sustain a micropopulation. Communities camp out here and there, making use of abandoned airports from which no aircraft will ever take off again. The Internet is rationed and available to the protagonists for just a few hours a week, but this is enough to keep up a florid correspondence. Few artworks have survived. A box of films on 35 mm film stock, several abstract paintings. These are showcased during rare ceremonies. Former museum staff and curators have abandoned white cube temples and work in a garden, conducting valuable experiments in the field of interspecies aesthetics. They communicate with fungi and lichens, produce antibiotics, vegan protein and vitamins. However rough, this vision has a certain allure. In a world after the end of the Holocene the human being is no longer an omnipotent being who systematises, modernises and exploits natural resources. Instead, people must adjust to the expectations of their non-human sisters and brothers. Solace also comes with the promise that art can be invented completely from scratch, even if this entails the ultimate abandonment of the museum and the movement-restricting costume of contemporary art. Regardless of whether Aladdin’s lamp hides a magical creature inside or just the promise of its existence, it reminds us about the role played by the imagination in our common work for the sake of a better future.


[1] William Edward Burghardt Du Bois, “Criteria of Negro Art”, The Crisis, vol. 32 (October 1926) 295.

[2] Luis Camnitzer, “Where is the Genie?”, an edited version of a keynote speech for the conference The Idea of the Global Museum, held at the Museum für Gegenwart at the Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin (December 2016).

[3] Conversation with Ursula Meyer. It was originally published in Meyer ed., Conceptual Art, (New York: Dutton, 1972).

[4] Wanda Gołkowska, Jerzy Ludwiński, Odkrywki: Kropla wiedzy o plenerze ziemia zgorzelecka 1971–2021, (Discoveries: A drop of knowledge about the open air Ziemia Zgorzelecka 1971–2021), catalogue, (Wrocław: Muzeum Współczesne Wrocław, 1971).

[5] Rewilding Europe, What Is Rewilding?.

[6] Jerzy Ludwiński, Sztuka w epoce postartystycznej, Sztuka w epoce postartystycznej i inne teksty, ed. Jarosław Kozłowski (Poznań: Akademia Sztuk Pięknych w Poznaniu, 2009), 57.

[7] Allan Kaprow, “The Education of Un-Artist: Part 1 (1971)”, Essays on the Blurring of Art and Life, ed. Jeff Kelley (Barkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1993), 98.

[8] Francis McKee, “The Rainbow Wrasse”, The Constituent Museum: Constellations of Knowledge, Politics and Mediation (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2018), 14–26.